I have a ton to say on today’s rankings, so I’m not going to churn you through a long introduction here. This is the end of our August Cubs prospect rankings update. We started part one with some intriguing but far-away talents, and yesterday in part two we saw the pitching depth of the system. Here is my top seven, as of this precise moment in time.
7-5: The Second Tier
I’m going to tell you right now, this three-man grouping is where I feel like I’m not going with my instincts. Sometimes, you have a thought about a guy, and you need extra re-affirmation to back up the eye test. With this ranking, I’m buying time.
7. Ryan Jensen, rhp, 21, Eugene
6. Cole Roederer, of, 19, South Bend
5. Adbert Alzolay, rhp, 24, Iowa
If I filled out a scouting report on these three players, Ryan Jensen would have the highest grade. However, I also recognize that I’ve seen Jensen pitch five professional innings plus one collegiate start. My own sample size is not enough to allow him to usurp the other two … yet.
Jensen and Alzolay are actually a pretty fascinating comparison. Two smaller right-handers, with Jensen less filled out and probably an inch or two shorter (both are listed at six feet). Both have thrown fastballs in the high 90s before, though Alzolay is more typically 93-96, while Jensen’s showing more 95-99 in his Eugene stint so far. Both have good breaking balls – I swear no one in Chicago saw Alzolay’s hook at its best, and Jensen throws a slider that’s going to play well off the (insane) armside run of his fastball.
Where I’m comfortable not trusting my gut and waiting longer before picking Jensen is remembering Alzolay’s changeup in the Majors. It’s a pitch that Jensen does not possess, and it’s the last hope that Alzolay might still be a starter. But he’s running out of time, and the injuries are piling up. If he’s good in the bullpen in September, will the Cubs just keep him there for good? Oddly, Jensen has the longer runway of starting opportunity.
And then there’s Roederer, who has his wRC+ back up to 100 in the very tough Midwest League behind a recent hot streak. My concerns about Roederer are entirely physical: his body is pretty darn small; I don’t believe the 6-foot, 175 listing. It limits his present power, and it limits his arm strength significantly. I’ve actually been pretty impressed with his ability to catch the ball, and still have some hope for center field.
Roederer also has committed to drawing walks this summer, with a 18.6 BB% since July 1, and that’s a change that I’m overweighting in its importance. I have compared Roederer to Brian Giles in the past, and for that to be anywhere close to true, he has to walk at near insane levels. Well, he’s showing that it’s possible. And there’s no denying that, even at his size, the ball absolutely jumps off the bat when he times up a fastball and gets his arms extended. Excited to see what comes back from the winter weights program. He doesn’t even turn 20 until next month.
4: The Top Pitcher
4. Brailyn Marquez, lhp, 20, Myrtle Beach
Before the season, I insisted that I believed Brailyn Marquez to be a top 100 prospect. It’s hard for me to believe that given his recent hot streak, this might be a fight we still have to tackle in the offseason. What does a top 100 prospect look like if it’s not a left-handed pitcher throwing triple digits and racking up outs?
Mainstream prospect analysis is getting a little too cute if we’re trying to overthink that one.
Perhaps that’s a bit hypocritical while I keep Brailyn in the four spot, and I can’t argue it. I wouldn’t have a huge problem if someone put him in the top spot. But at the end of the day, it’s a pitcher. There’s fear baked in. Right now, that fear is still winning out.
3-1: Trusting My Gut At The Top
Welp, here goes.
3. Nico Hoerner, up-the-middle, 22, Tennessee
2. Miguel Amaya, c, 20, Myrtle Beach
1. Brennen Davis, of, 19, South Bend (IL)
Before you label me a “Nico hater” or accuse me of simply trying to be different, please listen to the nuance and hear me out. I think any order of these three is totally valid. The opposite ranking, which I think is more consensus, I have absolutely no arguments with.
Part of the fun of having Nico in the top spot is because of how perfectly he fits into the Cubs roster moving forward. The Cubs have spent this second half trying Hoerner at second base and center field, and from what I’ve seen, it’s going really well. His instincts in center are very good for someone without experience there, and he’s thrown out people trying to test if he has an infielder’s arm. He’s also a potential leadoff hitter with good speed. He’s doing the things we want the Cubs to add, at positions the Cubs have need. It’s truly a match made in heaven.
But you know what? All that is still true with Hoerner at No. 3. It’s just that when I evaluate these three guys, I keep coming back to the fact that Hoerner is the one that I actually project the least confidently. I know he has really good, near elite, speed. I know that his hit tool is easily the best of the three, and his exit velocities should make him a guy who always posts good BABIP’s and high averages.
I just don’t feel like I know the answer to the power question, and I don’t feel like the trend in walk rate is great. It’s not a great year to evaluate the power because of the wrist injury, but I can’t say for certain that Nico will hit double-digit home runs at the big league level. Perhaps he’ll get to the juiced ball in Iowa, and with those consistent line drives, find the ability to get it over the fence. And that will be great.
Hoerner shows good strike zone awareness, but he also shows that he’ll try to swing his way out of slumps: he walked just four times in 116 July PA. He didn’t walk much in the Arizona Fall League last year. That number is way up so far in August, so perhaps when I update the list again in the offseason, I’ll feel better about this issue, and there will be little having him shoot back up to the top spot. I’m in wait-and-see mode.
Amaya, my preseason top prospect, has been on fire of late:
Amaya building on these numbers tonight, as he hits his tenth home run of the season, this one to right-center. Ben Zobrist and Cam Balego score.
The Cubs worked hard to manage Amaya’s first half workload, and it’s paying massive dividends. He’s on fire.
— Cubs Prospects – Bryan Smith (@cubprospects) August 9, 2019
It’s not, I hope, that I’m letting this 22-game sample speak too much. The ebbs and flows of the season are inevitable, but given that Amaya has been so rough in Augusts before, it does feel like he’s assuaging a past concern. His work last winter to continue his body development is helping his endurance.
I also just think there’s a real chance we see Amaya’s power explode in one of the next two seasons. His swing is a classic power swing, and his last two years have been spent in laughably pitching-friendly environments. Next season he’ll be in Tennessee, and while that’s a pitcher’s league, he’ll play in a hitter’s park. And above it is Iowa, where power will not be a problem unless significant changes are made to the league. I think there’s a chance that Amaya could be top three among catchers some day in home runs; that’s a pretty darn intriguing guy when the glove is already advanced.
And then there’s Davis, who leads the system this year with a 151 wRC+. He’s had some bad injury luck, as his fingers keep getting in the way of baseballs. Twice that was the result of bunt attempts, and the third time was just a pitch that kept riding in. But to be fifty percent better than Midwest League average at his age – in his first full professional season after being drafted as a two-sport athlete out of high school – is just astounding.
For now, I’m putting upside in the top spot, because I believe Davis has the highest ceiling in the system. His sheer development in the last 14 months is crazy, and that couples with instincts that have shown to be really good. I think his body has another 20-30 pounds of muscle to gain, and I trust that he’ll be able to do it. I think he’ll need to make further adjustments, particularly in breaking balls breaking away from him, but I trust that he’ll be able to do it.
The Cubs took a rail-skinny, very fast, ultra-raw guy in Davis, and re-built him. With a little extra muscle, the speed is down a bit, he’s probably a corner outfielder more likely to steal 10-20 bases than a true five tool guy. But his swing now has a control and purpose to it that is rare for his age – he’s short and quick to the ball, because he doesn’t need a long swing to generate power. It should help keep his strikeouts down.
There are going to be hiccups and blips along the way for Brennen, because he still has a very long way to go. But if you have the talent, instincts and intelligence to keep adjusting and keep improving, there isn’t much to be afraid of.
[Brett: I think this is all very fair at the top, and I know Bryan digs far deeper on this stuff than I do. For me, the higher level and positional value of Hoerner and Amaya would bump them over Davis, but I can absolutely see the incredible upside in Davis – a tremendous athlete who transformed his body and swing so much in a single offseason that I could barely believe it when I saw him this year. Anyone who is a buy-buy-buy on Davis after this season is going to look smart in a couple years.]